‘The more people know about Moldova, the better it is for the country’

Andrew Wrobel talks to Tudor Ulianovschi, Moldova's foreign minister, about the country's image abroad, and how perceptions are finally changing for the better.

Andrew Wrobel (AW): Let’s start with the UK first. Europe seems to be preparing for a no-deal Brexit. What are your expectations? Is Brexit one of the reasons for your visit?

Tudor Ulianovschi (TU): My visit here is a strong signal of the fact that the Republic of Moldova would like to have an enhanced, renewed relationship with the UK and with London. It is a clear political message that Moldova is open and is ready to engage and sign any new agreements following the restructuring of the UK post-Brexit, with regards to the Eastern Partnership countries.

Moldova has signed a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU of which the UK has been – or is still – a part. Now we are ready to engage in negotiations, and that was my message when I discussed with Alan Duncan, the Minister for Europe and also with the Minister of Economy and Trade, that we are ready to engage in bilateral talks to sign a free trade agreement with the UK. We see this agreement to be even more liberal and ambitious, why not even more courageous so it can include perhaps even larger areas of cooperation, be it agriculture, be it services like ICT, or for that matter the Common European Aviation Area? I arrived in London on a direct route from Chișinău to London operated by Moldovan Airlines, an example that we already have good ties which could be further developed and enhanced.

AW: So how would you like your relations with the UK to change post-Brexit? Do you have any specific expectations that Moldova could also benefit from?

TU: First of all there is the economic interest, and that’s why we are willing to negotiate the FTA between the two countries. Number two, we would like to see some positive developments in the visa facilitation process between our two countries, because the Republic of Moldova unilaterally removed all visas for UK citizens in 2007 and we hope that the new agreement — or the new agreements — between our two countries will also include further liberalisation of the visa regime offered to Moldovan citizens. Number three, we would like to have a country-to-country mechanism or format of strategic dialogue which will include government officials from various ministries: agriculture, economy, culture, IT, defence and security. Security is an extremely important topic for Moldova in the current political climate. We know that there are positive examples in the relationship between the UK and Georgia, for example, and we hope to find more UK officials fond of Moldova.

On the parliamentary side, we have already in Moldova a UK friendship group, and there is a Moldova friendship group here in London as well, in Parliament. I think that the parliaments should be engaged, to help us move forward with the reforms. Then there is the Moldovan diaspora here — we have a very large Moldovan community, which is roughly 30-40,000 strong, and that’s a big number for a small country like Moldova. Being a Minister of Foreign Affairs for Moldova, the first task of any diplomat is to promote the rights and protection of Moldovan citizens abroad, including in the UK. In this situation we are ready to start bilateral talks, post-Brexit talks, and to make sure that the interests of the Moldovan citizens currently residing in the UK – be it for business, or for education, or for other purposes – are not impacted in the negative and that they remain protected. That is extremely important for us, and that is the message I gave today to the Foreign Office.

AW: Moving away from the UK and returning to the situation in Moldova, where is the country headed – west or east?

TU: To be very clear, Moldova is in a very interesting regional format. We are not yet a member of the EU, yet we have the Eastern Partnership, and we are an Associated member of the EU. But we are still, at least for now, a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and we still have bilateral relations with Russia and the former Soviet Union republics. So for us it is extremely important geopolitically to have relations with the west and with the east, mainly due to the fact that we also have a large community of Moldovans in the Russian Federation. But at the same time, the top priority is European integration of Moldova, because we do see the European model of government as that which we would like to implement in Moldova.

What I would like to see as a Moldovan citizen — not as a minister but as a citizen — is to have a parliamentary majority that will give a vote of confidence to a government that will have the task of continuing the implementation of the Association Agreement between Moldova and the EU. We have the roadmap. We know what to do because we have a national plan for the implementation of the association agreement. We have visa-free access, we have free-trade, and we want to increase the export quotas and continue reforms in order to fight corruption, increase media independence, decentralise the Supreme Court of Justice, and carry out many of the other reforms that included in the roadmap. That is why as a citizen of Moldova I want these reforms to continue. I am not a member of any party. But I am a clear member of the pro-European community, while not disregarding the fact that we need to have normal constructive relations with the Russian Federation. It’s a big market, we have many thousands of Moldovans there, and that is why I have had several meetings with the Russian officials, including with Sergei Lavrov, while we recently had a from the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Karasin. I don’t think that we should necessarily speak in terms of east or west. We have to speak for Moldova, what is best for the country.

AW: What about the future of Transnistra, Gagauzia and other autonomous areas. These clearly represent a huge challenge.

TU: It is a challenge but also an opportunity I would say, and the current leadership, the current government, has been actively promoting cooperation by reaching out to the various regions of Moldova that have large ethnic groups, and that includes Gagauzia, it includes Taraclia, with its a Bulgarian ethnic minority and it includes the Transnistrian region of Moldova, which is a whole separate issue. In the recent electoral reform we have created two seats for ethnic MPs from Gagauzia and one MP from Taraclia, as we want them to be represented. So we have this inclusive approach, and for the Transnistrian region, for the first time, they will elect their own three MPs in the national parliament – so we, the current government, have a very open, engaging approach, which has not been the case in the past. In the past it was very much centre-oriented, and not decentralised.

I am pleased to note that more and more European or international assistance is being channeled to these regions. We need these regions to be stronger because together we are stronger. And definitely we have to do that with the clear idea in mind that it’s one state – that Moldova is an independent, sovereign nation, with its territory united. We are ready to launch — to relaunch, in fact — negotiations that have been launched in the past, on a special status for the Transnistrian region within Moldova by concentrating more on the economy, and on the principle of more than autonomy, less then independence. This is what we want to do. The idea is have a dialogue, and to bring people together: those from the Transnistrian region with the entire population of Moldova. That is why we have recently taken some historic decisions on the recognition of diplomas, the registration of license plates, communication and much else. It is in the national interest for Moldova to allow a better engagement from a national government with these regions. And I am strongly against of any foreign interference politically.

Assistance, donations and programmes for development are extremely welcome, but they have to be carried out in consultation with the national government, with the idea of better streamlining the process and not blocking anything. The idea is that we would like to engage all the regions. It is not easy, because Moldova is a small country, but yet a very diverse country. That is why it is important to stress engagement, decentralisation, and a clear understanding that there is a national government and this is a unitary state, not a federation or confederation. And it is extremely important to focus on the fact that only together can we succeed.

AW: We’ve talked about reunification within Moldova. What about Romania?

TU: Romania is Moldova’s main bilateral trade partner and we are extremely interested in developing even further cooperation with Romania. We have benefitted from lots of technical assistance projects and grants from Romania. We are implementing right now the interconnection of a gas pipeline, the so-called Iasi-Ungheni pipeline, and engaging with them on electric grid cooperation.

Romania is the main advocate and supporter of Moldova’s European integration. We do not speak about the reunification of Moldova with Romania. Instead, Moldova and Romania have united their efforts in promoting Moldova’s European integration and we are grateful to the Romanian leadership for their support for Moldova’s development, but also for their support within the EU. We look forward to Romania’s upcoming presidency of the EU next year.

Commercially, we now have Romanian banks investing in Moldova, with EBRD support. And this is an example that Moldova is a good place for investment, and with the help of Romania, we are creating a positive of Moldova abroad.

AW: Looking at the question of image in more depth, how much do you think people outside Moldova perceive the country?

TU: A stone, in order to become a diamond, has to be polished everyday. And the better polished it is, the better diamond it becomes. That’s the same thing for Moldova. In my opinion we – meaning the Moldovan leadership, the Moldovan government – we need to continue the efforts of promoting the country abroad. The Moldovan community abroad plays a big role in that. My understanding is that the Moldovan community in the UK has a good reputation and that is encouraging for me as a foreign minister.

We also have to more aggressively promote Moldova as a good place for investment. We have not only Romanian but big German, Japanese corporations already came to Moldova to invest. It’s one thing when you as a government official present your country, but another when you use examples of existing investment to do so.

From the financial and banking point of view, we have of late managed to secure an IMF loan agreement and also to increase our rating in the doing business rankings. What I would like to see in the future, and that’s where strategic communication should be focused, is to see Moldova no longer presented as a country located between east and west. We need to move away from the geopolitical paradigm, and to focus on a country that is open for international cooperation. As Thomas Friedman said: ‘The world is flat’ – meaning that everything is interconnected and Moldova has to be more aggressively promoting itself. I can admit that perhaps it has not been the case in the past, or we are yet to learn how to better promote our country. And this is where perhaps we can learn from the UK.

Moldova has to identify one or two elements that can make ourselves unique in the world in order to be easily recognised. Wine, for example. We are a wine-producing country and can boast the longest underground wine cellar in the world.

We are also now promoting – alongside bilateral diplomacy – international multilateral diplomacy at the UN, as that’s where if your voice is heard then you are truly international. And that is why also I am the first Moldovan Minister of Foreign Affairs who has had the idea to have a Moldovan embassy on every continent. Because unfortunately we don’t now have an embassy in Latin America, or in Africa. I have launched the process of opening embassies in Ghana, in Argentina, and in India. We have to continue working with our additional partners within Europe, North America and the CIS countries while working in parallel with additional partners and reaching out to those countries and emerging regions that are geographically further away from Moldova. The more countries will know about Moldova, the better it is for the country.

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